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The Boston Globe

Opinion

  

SCOT LEHIGH

Walsh’s chance to deliver on labor

Marty Walsh has a problem.

So does the City of Boston.

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What if addressing one meant fixing the other?

Let’s start with Walsh. Although the legislator-who-would-be-mayor is personable and well-liked, he faces real doubts that he’d be sufficiently independent of organized labor. In part that’s because, until he quit the post to launch this campaign, the Dorchester state rep had also been the $175,000-a-year chief of the Boston Building Trades, and in part because labor has spent heavily to support him. Those doubts have been deepened by legislation he filed that would cut the City Council out of any role in reviewing arbitrators’ decisions. If it were law, that bill would force Boston to fund a new police arbitration award that Mayor Menino, Walsh himself, and rival John Connolly all say is too expensive.

Walsh hasn’t disavowed that bill. Instead, he simply insists that as someone who enjoys the trust of labor, he could work contracts out at the bargaining table, and thus keep disputes from going to arbitration.

Reduced to his essence, his pitch is: Trust me, I can get this done.

The city’s problem, of course, is the aforementioned arbitrator’s decision, which would hike the average pay of Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association members by 25.4 percent over six years. In today’s tight times, funding it will almost inevitably mean cutting other city jobs, says the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

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But the ramifications extend beyond the total $87 million cost of this specific pact. The larger problem is that taxpayers are being squeezed by competing definitions of pay parity.

Three years ago, Boston Firefighters Local 718 won a large arbitration award based on the notion that they needed to catch up with the police, who earned more when details and overtime were included. That decision eventually led the council to approve a contract that raised their pay by some 21.5 percent over five years.

By that definition, fire and police are now at basic parity. Counting details and overtime for both, the average total compensation in fiscal year 2012 was $109,847 for the police and $109,090 for the firefighters.

Now, however, the Patrolmen’s Association has obtained a generous arbitrator’s award based on a different theory of parity. That is, that one can’t count extra pay (which means disallowing the $33,000 the average police officer makes in details and overtime) and all that matters is base pay. By that measure, the average firefighter, at $91,115, makes $14,743 more than the average cop, who earns $76,372.

By that reasoning, the police now need to catch up. But if the police get this raise, councilors should then expect the firefighters to argue they deserve the same percentage hike, further escalating the wage spiral.

Both sides have their arguments. Buckle your seat belt. The police say, accurately, that the firefighters can arrange their shifts so they have several days a week free for second jobs. And that they get paid for (legitimate) sleeping time while on duty.

OK, but the firefighters’ regular 42-hour work week is about five hours longer than that of the patrolmen, who average about 37 a week. Further, because of mandatory minimum pay for details and overtime assignments, the average total police compensation includes $9,700 for hours not worked. That said, it’s also true that, on average, the police work about 117 hours more a year — or about 2.5 more a week — to get to the same overall total pay of about $109,000.

In sum, the city has a nettlesome contract issue.

Marty Walsh says he can work with labor to resolve thorny issues.

What an opportunity to prove that assertion! Obviously Walsh can’t negotiate new contracts. But what if he sat down right now with both unions and brokered an affordable agreement on how pay parity will be calculated? Or, at very least, got the unions to commit to arriving at such an agreement in the next few months — and to pledge that if they can’t, both unions will content themselves with settling their contracts for the same percentage raises non-public-safety city workers are getting?

Do that, and Walsh would demonstrate that he really can deliver. He’d transform skeptics into believers — and himself into the next mayor of Boston.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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